Here I am writing from Ecuador trying to integrate into my consciousness everything that happened in Colombia. We have received one of the best receptions of the World March throughout its entire journey so far, maybe it’s even been the best and, far and away, we have had the most success in terms of media coverage.
We arrived on Tuesday and already at the airport we had at least 100 people waiting for us to arrive. There were TV cameras, dancers, singers and big hugs for all the base team members. We were transferred to our hotel where we dropped our bags and rushed off to a press conference with the Mayor, Samuel Moreno and his lovely wife. Also at the press conference we had a couple of very famous Colombian musicians, Pipe Bueno who’s only 17 years old, and Mario Munoz from the group Doctor Krapula. Of course, coming from North Europe, I’ve never heard of them but in Colombia they are known everywhere.
Once this was over we took a funicular railway and headed to the top of Montserrat where we were expected for dinner. We have had very little opportunity for tourism throughout the whole March because that’s not what we came for, but from Montserrat you could see the whole of the city lit up at night, and in addition we had an exquisite dinner which is probably the best food of the whole trip, even beating the crayfish of Rekohu! (Also it made a great change from frijoles, the staple diet of Central America.)
The next day there was a mega march of about 6 kilometres from one park to another going through the city of Bogota. We were accompanied by the Mayor’s wife, a senator whose husband was murdered by paramilitary forces and who has been working for peace ever since, and at the start of the March we had Mario with us again and the band, Aterciopelados. The musicians didn’t march with us though as they were playing in the concert later. The media were there in force, and even Reuters asked me for an interview in English!
We did the March with what must have been at least 2000 people with hundreds of banners showing that we had the support of many organisations, including the LGBT community, I was happy to note.
The concert started at about 2pm, but at 3pm it rained for about 15 minutes (while the base team were all eating lunch) so by the time we arrived at the stadium the poor audience were drenched! Still, it didn’t seem to matter to them, they were here for a party and a bit of rain wasn’t going to stop them.
Rafael and Tomy went on stage and got another fantastic reception. When it was Tomy’s turn to speak to the audience he knew exactly what to say: “Here in Colombia people want no more violence. They want an end to obligatory military service. They don’t want US military bases.” The crowd went wild. It was fantastic and given that the concert was apparently being broadcast live, the message reached all over Colombia.
It is clear that this is a very effective way to get our message across to our target audience: youth. There were about 8 or 9 acts playing, either they were wearing the World March t-shirts, singing about peace, or expressing what peace is for them. Aterciopelados came on stage with white furry peace symbols…
There was a reserved area in front of the audience where special invited guests could go. The base team were there and took advantage of the good view to take lots of photos and talk to the other people who were also receiving the VIP treatment. It was great fun. Sinthya and Juanita were transported back in time to their own adolescence and they insisted on staying right to the end whereas the others lost their energy and enthusiasm and returned to the hotel early.
The next morning we flew to the border with Ecuador, to a city called Pasto where we were meant to drive to the border to meet Juanes. Now those of you in Latin America or Spain will probably know who he is, but most of the rest of us had no idea.
As has become a bad habit now, we were late for the event but mostly this was because the connecting flight arrived late into Bogota. We drove through the stunning Colombian countryside, and my old Geography teacher would have been delighted to know that I can still identify a V-shaped (water eroded) valley which are very different from the U-shaped (ice eroded) valleys of the Alps and Andes. The countryside left us feeling very peaceful and enamoured of the region but we really had no idea what was about to happen to shake us from that reverie…
On arrival at the border town we could see up ahead that there was a crowd waiting so we stopped our bus, got our banners out and started walking in that direction. What we found was the traffic totally still and hundreds of people; women and men of all ages, and the police and firemen trying to form a barrier between Juanes and his fans. I was thinking to myself, “How the hell are we going to get in there?” The crowd was about 10 people deep and tightly packed.
So, I think Juanes must have got out of his car and started walking totally encircled by all these security people from the Police and fire brigade. I realised that there was no way to push my way through the crowd, so I went ahead of the mob and waited for it to reach me, and as the security people reached me I told them that I was with the World March and that (together with my Spanish in a terrible English accent) was enough for them to let me into the inner circle, where I eventually found Rafael (who had clearly pushed his way through) and Tomy. We walked all together in our secure bubble, but at the bubble’s edge it was like feeding time at the zoo. Everyone wanted a piece of Juanes. The crowds had clearly attracted the pickpockets also because by the time they had breached the security bubble, Tomy had had his passport and wallet taken, Rafa was missing all the coins in his pockets and David (our Colombian Coordinator) was without his blackberry and mobile phone.
Still, with all this chaos there was the media. It seemed like there were hundreds of expensive cameras all pointing in Juanes’s direction and apparently a couple of channels were broadcasting live.
We approached the civic buildings where a banner was to be handed over to the Ecuadorian singer, Juan Fernando Velasco, and things were getting more and more scary. There were stone steps to negotiate and of course cameramen and young people were falling over everywhere, not realising the steps were approaching. In this moment I saw Isabelle and I had an idea to ask Juanes to say a few words for all the thousands of volunteers around the world who have worked so brilliantly for the success of the March. I tried to get Isabelle through the security cordon which was impeded by the fact that she kept dropping things like the microphone and her hat. Anyway, we got her in and ready to film and I asked him to say a few words and he gladly did so, but then Isabelle was pressing buttons and plugs because there was no sound. We tried a couple of times and although we got images there was no sound. Then she realised that the camera was in the wrong mode and that we hadn’t captured anything. By that time of course Juanes had passed by and we were in the crowd again. Well it was so stressful that I didn’t want to push in again and say we’d had a technical malfunction, but Isabelle was so upset with herself for not capturing the sound that she went off to try again (which she did, incidentally).
Juanes met the Ecuadorean and together with Rafa and Tomy they all said a few words and suddenly Juanes was moving again, back up the hill, with his fans still trying to kill each other in order to get as close as possible and take a photo.
I was very shocked by what I’d witnessed, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, poor Juanes!!! This is his life every time he leaves his front door. He told me he’d been in London a couple of weeks ago and I was imagining that for him that must be lovely because he could walk down the middle of Oxford Street naked (although in December it’s not recommended) and no one would notice him. Secondly, people are crazy!! This is the World March for Nonviolence, but I don’t think many of those people would think twice about pushing people out of the way if it meant they could get 2 centimetres closer to their hero. Montse damaged her ribcage in the all the pushing as she made her way into the inner circle and the poor guy who was carrying the World March t-shirts was virtually assaulted by the people who wanted to get the same t-shirt as Juanes, of course not one of these people thought to pay for them. Sometimes the difference between human being and savage animal is very difficult to detect.
One very nice story to go with the day was the personal journey of reconciliation taken by our Isabelle. Isabelle is from Switzerland and her father was a Swiss diplomat and in 1980 he was the Swiss Ambassador to Colombia when a violent paramilitary group called M-19 forced their way into an Ambassadors’ party that he was attending and took 13 Ambassadors hostage.
After a 2 month siege of the Dominican Republic Embassy, eventually a deal was prepared whereby the hostages and hostage-takers were transported to Cuba where everyone was released unharmed, but during the 2 months, both the Swiss and Austrian Ambassadors had been kept separated from the others and were prepared to be the first ones killed should the government not meet the demands of the hostages.
Isabelle’s father died 9 years later, but Isabelle was a teenager when all this was happening and it’s clearly something that she still hasn’t recovered from.
In the March with Juanes, we were also accompanied by the elected Governor of the Region, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who was in the M-19 leadership during the time of the hostage drama. He was, very kindly, helping us to get our passports checked quickly when someone told Isabelle about this and suddenly she was face to face with one of the people responsible for her father’s kidnapping. It was a very tense moment which I think she had been preparing for right from the beginning of her plans to join the March. Her idea was to interview him about those dramatic days and try to find some reconciliation for herself. I haven’t seen the footage that they took, but Isabelle was barely able to ask the questions without crying and tears were pouring down her cheeks, but she continued asking all the questions that she must have been asking herself for years. It was very moving to watch and all the rest of the base team were standing around intensely aware of the drama and significance of what was happening to Isabelle.
The Governor was initially surprised and probably a bit frightened by what was happening – I don’t imagine that many hostage takers meet the family members of their hostages, especially 19 years later – and he was probably expecting a hysterical Isabelle to start kicking an punching him and he started very defensive, but I think he started to realised that this was not about any kind of revenge, it was about Isabelle trying to understand why this had happened to her as a teenage girl and he softened and the two of them seemed to connect at a very human level.
He explained that his left leg was artificial and a result of the conflict, but Isabelle pointed out that he had put himself into that situation and only had himself to blame unlike her father who was just doing his job.
The interview finished in a very good tone and they exchanged e-mail addresses. M-19 gave up the path of violence years ago and has entered into a political process and in fact we found out that the person in charge of that hostage operation was now working alongside President Uribe having totally turned around his political opinions. I don’t think Isabelle thought for one minute that he’d even still be alive! Maybe there will be some further interviews Isabelle will want to make before the reconciliation is totally complete…
Finally we left Colombia very, very late, with a military airplane waiting for us on the other side of the border, but the drama of the day (for me at least) was not over.
The Ecuadorian organisers took us to the border control where we had very little time indeed if we were going to catch our flight (it had to fly in day light) and we had our passports checked. Now, I’ve been to Ecuador before for a Humanist Forum in 2006, but I’ve had a new passport issued since then. The border guard put my name and date of birth into a computer and suddenly he was telling me that I can’t come into the country because I didn’t get my passport stamped on the way out last time, and that I would have to pay a US $200 fine if I wanted to enter. Now, I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, all I know is that when I left Quito last time, I paid the exorbitant airport tax and stood in the same queues as everyone else. What I can more easily imagine is a human error at the border controls in 2006 and my passport wasn’t processed properly. However none of this speculation was helping when the guard told me I couldn’t come into the country. He dealt with everyone else, and with all hope of any of us getting this flight fading into the distance, suddenly he changed his mind and told me to go and sort it out in Quito. So here I am in Quito without an entry stamp in my passport and desperately hoping that the Ecuadorian friends, with their newly acquired high-level contacts in government, are able to clear everything up before I take my plane on Sunday to Lima…
With a big hug